Saturday, July 28, 2007

Richard Dawkins

I realized after my last post that I have been thinking about Richard Dawkins a lot. If you haven't heard of him, you can read some quotes by him here.

As a Christian and a convinced member of the design science camp, you would expect that I would be feeling something negative toward these views. I admit that I don't think I could be close friends with someone that seems to breathe hatred towards me on account of my most cherished beliefs. However, in some ways we are far more alike than would be obvious at first glance.

Here is a man who is agreed with me on a very fundamental point: there is such a thing as truth! He is totally convinced that I am wrong, that my world view is absolutely askew. I am totally convinced that he is wrong, that his world view is completely off base from the root. We disagree on everything except for this: there really is some objective truth, a reality which explains existence.

It is actually refreshing to see someone who has firmly established in his mind that there is a true explanation for existence, and is willing to say so. I think the truth gets clouded and damaged when people try to be "tolerant" and "open-minded". I want to slap some people and say, "DAMN IT! WAKE UP! You can't believe everything, you fool!" I can absolutely guarantee you that Richard Dawkins is not open-minded, and I applaud him for it. I have spent a great many years forming my beliefs and thoughts, and I am not about to easily give over to every stupid whim of an idea that floats along. Open-mindedness usually means you hold no opinion dear and so you have not questioned things deeply enough on your own to hold your own thoughts. Richard Dawkins holds his own thoughts and so do I. We will probably never come to any agreement whatsoever, because I am completely and utterly convinced that he is WRONG. I flagrantly and proudly and abundantly proclaim that he is wrong, just as he does to me.

I'm not saying I "believe" he is wrong - that is a terribly wrong use of that word. I am saying that he IS wrong. Belief does not mean, I kind of weakly hope that my vague thoughts about the nature of reality are true, but I'm not sure. Belief means, I am thoroughly convinced that my view of the world is true. I have thought about this, read many books, reflected on many ideas, and fought and worked to understand TRUTH. You are going to have to work very very hard if you are going to convince me otherwise, and I guarantee you that you are not going to be able to persuade me on fundamental points. I believe what I believe, and I believe it very strongly and very deeply. I believe it, not because it is comforting or helpful or because I was raised that way. I hate these reasons for "believing" something. I believe it because I am greatly seeking truth. TRUTH.

There is actually truth. There is a real explanation for existence. No one is going to get anywhere in their life work if they have not become convinced on this particular point, and strangely, on this point, Richard Dawkins and I are on the same page. There is truth.

I think that is all I want to say with this post: doesn't anyone really believe in anything any more? We seem to live to only keep from offending one another, and this is a really weak basis for living. Offend me! I will love you for it. We may disagree, but that doesn't mean I don't respect you for having the courage to actually think deeply enough about the world to have something you can disagree with me about. I think we can be civil and strongly be convinced of what we do actually think the world is made of.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Music and the Long Now

I read a book a while back that my mind often goes back to, called The Clock of the Long Now. They are trying to build a 10,000 year clock, and the basic idea is to force us to think in terms of the impact of our work and our mistakes in a longer term sense.

We live in a world where the disposability of things is accelerating. Great mountains of work and data from only 20 years ago are unreadable by today's machines, or are readable only with great effort. I've had years of my best work on databases unceremoniously thrown out when new technologies came along. Our work and creative output seems to become obsolete in increasingly small frames of time. We look at culture from "the 70's" or "the 80's" as being hopelessly different and perhaps backwater to our present society. Do things really change that much in 30 years? The American revolution was only about 230 years ago, which in the scope of history is a tiny blip. Yet we look on those times as hopelessly alien and long ago to us, like a completely different epoch. We are surprised when their ideas and work retain their relevance to our society.

The idea that we could do some kind of work which has lasting impact on human history and society seems impossible anymore. Will anything I do today have any relevance at all even 20 years from now? We are at a moment when our information based society needs to address the extreme transience which it fosters.

So the redesign of the web which is much needed and which, perhaps as a futile exercise, I am working on, must address the requirement for permanence and document stability. This is one reason why I like XML and semantic tagging, because documents should be stored in a format which is possible for a machine to dynamically parse, but which a human can read. Any use of XML which violates the human readable part of the equation, as HTML really does, fails. Javascript and CSS get broken every time a new browser version is introduced. The web is impermanent.

But even if this document stability requirement were met, it would mean that our society, our "information society", depends on incredibly complex machines and a vast interdependent web of power and information lines, to exist. We communicate via immensely complex protocols and standards. We live in a house of paper perched on gossamer held together with dabs of glue and tape. We are at home with impermanence. I'm not sure this is bad; I once wrote a series of poems in the sand on the beach which were completely washed away by the tide, and life is surely like that. Perhaps we are wise to embrace this impermanence.

What does all of this have to do with music? Music is a great art form to look at when thinking about the relationship between the extreme present and the long term or even eternal. Beethoven said that music should be at once surprising and inevitable. It is fascinating to me that Brian Eno is on the board of the Long Now foundation, his work is to me pretty much the icon of ethereal impermanent almost ghostly one-time performances. In fact, I think Brian Eno coined the phrase "Long Now". How could MUSIC of all things relate to the long now?

I was thinking that a lot of pop music is very focused on the fashionable and present tense moment. This is not bad or evil, Bach carefully studied the Italian Baroque music of his time and even wrote in the style. Music is a cultural activity, and culture is wed to the present time; in my opinion when John Cage tried to destroy this connection, he ceased making music. (I still find Cage's work interesting, I'm not criticizing his experiment.) The music of Bach survives because there is a depth and a level of architecture and value to his work that transcends the Baroque or the German Lutheran society of his time. Look at the Art of Fugue; Bach wrote this specifically to take couterpoint as far as it could go, to teach future generations what music could be. There is an eternal sense to this music, it is no longer baroque - he wrote it thinking toward the long now. If human society survives 10,000 years, they will find a way to preserve the music of Bach just as we have.

If we are going to build and work toward the long now, we need to determine that we are going to work according to a high and deep aesthetic; the lesson we learn from Bach is that it is not necessarily permanence which speaks to the long now; it is greatness. We build to the long now when we do work that would be tragic to lose.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Science and Religion

So, I've been thinking about the relationship between science and religion. They seem to be very much at odds; the science-minded among us seem to think that the faith-minded among us are very naive and backward and stupid, while the religious, apart from being very frightened of the science-minded, seem to be content to ignore and belittle their cold and colorless stance. Yet I am noting, perhaps in both camps, at least among the more intellectual circles, a growing interest in finding some kind of common ground. Look at - a very anti religious site, which is seeming to come a bit toward a softer stance.

I've been thinking that it would be nice if the two could come to terms in a way that was not insulting either to science or religious orthodoxy. Yes, that's right, religious orthodoxy. When a fundamentalist says that the earth is 6000 years old, this is insulting to science. When Richard Dawkins says "And I am optimistic that this final scientific enlightenment will deal an overdue deathblow to religion and other juvenile superstitions" and writes books called "The God Delusion," this is insulting to religion. Yet it is equally insulting to both to think that we can find some vapid happy medium. I can't stand these overly simplified compromises; truth is a very singular thing.

It is the wrong question to ask, is science right, or is religion right? Is there some middle ground? Maybe God caused evolution? I am always irritated and bored by these discussions regardless of your perspective. Who cares if religion or science is right? I don't. I care what is TRUE. People always seem to snicker and shake their heads when I bring this up, as if I am a naive child - the TRUTH is an impossible standard to obtain. In the REAL world we have science and religion. The true thought leaders in these fields were not pioneered by such cowardly thinking; they were pioneered by people who believed in and sought truth. A wreckless and fearless abandonment to the pursuit of truth is the only thing that will really carry the day.

Let's consider this: what options are available to us, here in the 21st century, to interpret and understand the world? We have science, which believes (yes - BELIEVES) that the universe sprang into existence uncaused, and that life arose purely by the lucky kiss of chance plus time. I think we should all step back and look with honesty, and say, this is absurd. It's OK, it is absurd. Science shoots itself in the foot and loses its credibility when it refuses to admit its weaknesses.

Now, let's consider the considerably murkier waters of religion and metaphysics. The religious believe that an invisible super-intelligent being somehow masterminded all of existence, but remains so elusively invisible that we debate about whether or not He even exists.

Then there are the agnostic among us, who pretend that it doesn't matter and we can't know and perhaps shouldn't pursue this. The strange and mystic thing here is that almost no one really believes this; we all strive to know the answers to these things; we maintain an insatiable curiosity. This is in itself a huge clue to me.

So, no matter what, we are shut up to believing in something which is patently absurd. There is no choice. Life is huge and beautiful and tragic and crazy and impossible to explain. Science is inadequate and religion is just... WILD!

One of the things I love about my faith is that it directly embraces this patent mystery; it demands faith right up front. It out and out admits that it demands belief in outrageous things. This does not make it true, by the way, don't think I am saying that. But it does say things like, God exists, God became a man, that that man's chief play for power was to die, even that somehow God wrote a book, things like that. The religious believer should not and cannot shy away from the fact that he believes in things that are shocking and outrageous.

However, does this mean, that in seeking truth, we only believe the shocking and therefore science is all wrong? How could that possibly be TRUE? Are we to throw all sense out the window? That would be just a little too black and white and simple to really explain the world, wouldn't it? Just as reason alone cannot explain or color existence, so faith alone cannot only guide us. Perhaps God has created nature and given us minds. The scriptures, in all of their admitted strangeness and also their beauty, do not really advocate a 6000 year-old universe or any such thing.

I want to go back to something I said earlier. Religion, and not only religion, but religious ORTHODOXY, is crucial to our pursuit of truth, because if there is a God, surely that God can speak to the humanity He created, and He could speak to people all through the history of mankind. If it is not old religion, it is not ancient wisdom, it seems not to be as good. That is why I say, science and religious ORTHODOXY need to come to terms with their own patent absurdities and their own strengths and come to a place where they are set together without insult in the pursuit of the actual truth which is there.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Human progress is more than technological progress

Futurists, people who try to imagine what the future will be like, often think in terms of technology. Judging the progress of humanity by technology alone is similar to judging the progress of history by wars alone. We have come a tremendous way in providing agriculture and domesticated animals so that we no longer have to hunt and gather to survive, nor create our own clothing or build our own personal shelters, and we have managed to create tremendous interdependent societies of commerce. Technology has afforded us this.

However, as technology empowers us more and more, the overarching problem facing us becomes less and less one of technical ability, and more and more one of imagination. This is where artificial intelligence research fails; it is not a problem of technology. We are awash in a world of computers and software, in which it is far more important to have imagination than to have better technology. What we really need progress in is culture.

I am a musician, and I find the current state of music culture very deficient. Thank God the music "industry" is faltering, and the internet is affording a new freedom and economy of distribution to emerge. I am eagerly awaiting the effects of the long tail effect (The Long Tail). I have always thought that we have plenty of Bachs and Mozarts and Stravinskys still walking around, but the supposed "market" is now uninterested in their genius; meaning, it won't sell in Wal-Mart. Academic "legitimate" music has evolved into a backwater of hyper-intellectualized bilge that no one, even the composers, wants to really listen to. On the other hand, pop music has evolved into a vapid wasteland of largely repetitive 2 dimensional tripe. What happened?

We have sunk almost all of our societal genius and effort and education into technology and capitalistic entrepreneurialism. (Notice how music is really viewed largely as being a part of "Youth Culture", and intelligent grown men and women are left with dead white-guy music if they want music that is listenable and intelligent.) It is coming time when the champion to emerge in the marketplace will not be the technologist or the venture capitalist, but the one with imagination. The iPhone, for example, is not a triumph of technology, it is a triumph of DESIGN - imagination. Note that the iPhone is an assemblage of a lot of existing technologies, but the assemblage alone would be no triumph at all. It is the tasteful and artful design of the whole which makes it a success.

I am a database designer. People often misunderstand what I do; they think I am a "programmer". Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the careful and insightful analysis of the complex work patterns of people, and the artful production of spare and functional and beautiful interfaces which are at the heart of my work. Thus it is very much true that it is not the technology which drives what I do, but imagination. I believe that more and more, as technology progresses, it will succeed in that it enables us to be more human, more imaginative, more collaborative. More than approaching a singularity in which humanity loses its control and personality, we are approaching an explosion of far greater individual empowerment and creative potential than the world has ever seen. This is a fantastic time to live!